Tokyo: A Biography by Stephen Mansfield by Stephen Mansfield - Read Online

Book Preview

Tokyo - Stephen Mansfield

You've reached the end of this preview. Sign up to read more!
Page 1 of 1



It was in Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, the great English historian Edward Gibbon wrote, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started in my mind. Few writers experience such timely or decisive moments. Cities creep up on us over time, insinuating themselves as an idea.

Gibbon’s approach to history was to understand it in predominantly human terms. It was a view of the past that was free from the idea of any inherent purpose. History consisted of causes, effects, events; there were no determining laws, theorems, no divine purpose. It was the opposite of the view held by the classic Chinese historians, who saw history as preordained but manageable by decree—if the Mandate of Heaven was lost by a weak or corrupt ruler, he could be legitimately, justifiably usurped, and the whole process of history restarted. Gibbon, a man of the Enlightenment, demonstrated that there were other routes back into historical time. To retrace those routes was to reencounter the human footprint on time. It was in something akin to that spirit, and a desire to write a history that would include everything of significance and interesting insignificance, that this book was written.

Many accounts of Tokyo, even those created today, when we should know better, are surprisingly dated inversions of reality. These books all too often portray Tokyo as a city suffering from a multiple personality disorder, a city whose residents experience spasms rather than emotions. In foreign-made films with Tokyo settings, the actors wander the city like humans exploring the surface of Neptune. In one book, writer Paul Theroux dismisses Tokyo as more like a machine than a city. This book was partly written as a riposte to the perception of Tokyoites as involuntary cells or charged particles streaming through the body of the city. Tokyo exists, like all great cities, because of the presence of a highly individual populace.

For any writer contemplating the past, the foremost question must be how to authentically render the historical experience, how to acquaint today’s readers with yesterday’s events. —How, in the case of Tokyo, to reconstruct time past in this least mnemonic of cities. When you start to think of the past as happening, as opposed to having happened, a new way of conceiving history becomes possible.

Despite its colossal building projects, Tokyo can still seem inchoate, even incorporeal, a massive jellyfish of cement and light. So great is the intensity of change that the city at times seems completely severed from its own history. There is no such thing, however, as an abiding city. The pattern, with rare exceptions, is invariably one of transformation, mutability. This is of course, a question of degree. Any talk of the past presupposes the persistence of history. Yet in Tokyo, we are presented with the very opposite: the impersistence of the past. Nothing is preordained. History is time travel.

Edward Seidensticker famously wrote that the argument between tradition and change—a characteristic of European cities—is less relevant in Tokyo, where change is a tradition. Considering all that has befallen the city, from natural disasters to the obliteration of Tokyo during World War II and the elimination of history in the postwar construction period, it is surprising that among the many sacred figures absorbed from India into the iconography of Japanese devotion Kali, the Hindu goddess of chaos and destruction, was not given a place among the city’s pantheon of deities.

No doubt, some of the best city histories are impartial accountings, but if we make a cult out of impartiality, the result will be narrative leached of vitality. I’ve tried to strike a balance between objectivity for the sake of accuracy and, to borrow a term from Susan Sontag, the passionate partiality that comes from direct experience.

I can bear witness in small part to the city’s recent history. I count myself lucky to have been on the platform at Kasumigaseki Station just hours before the sarin gas attack was carried out by a Japanese death cult. I was in the city when the earthquake and tsunami struck nearby Fukushima in March 2011. I was fortunate to have gotten a sleeping unit on the upper floor of a twelve-story capsule hotel, the narrow building swaying drunkenly with the series of aftershocks. There was precious little sleep to be had that night. The capsule next to mine was occupied by a distressed insomniac babbling prophesies about a ruined city, like a biblical figure speaking in tongues.

The Asakusa Kannon temple, also called Senso-ji, may be the oldest religious site in the city, built to enshrine a gold statue of Kannon, Goddess of Mercy, that was caught by two fisherman on the Sumida River. Originally founded in 645, the temple was destroyed during the bombings of World War II. Once rebuilt it became, if possible, even more meaningful to the people of Tokyo as a symbol of compassion and peace. (Dreamstime © Zheng Dong)


The flocks of Grus japonensis, the red-crowned crane, wading unmolested in the winter salt flats and tidal marshes, were not alone among avians nesting or sojourning along the swampy inlets of the bay. There were kestrels, egrets, Mongolian plovers, curlews, hawfinches, and the Japanese crested ibis, but it was the migratory crane—omnivorous consumer of crabs, snails, salamanders, and dragonflies—that would acquire special distinction as a Taoist symbol of immortality and fidelity, before it, too, like the city destined to rise here, would pass through cycles of growth, near-extinction, and transformation.

One thing that has not substantially changed is Tokyo’s geology. The city sits on the Kanto Loam Stratum, a bed of hard red clay amassed in the aftermath of volcanic eruptions. Tokyo’s top-soil of ash is roughly 20 meters deep. Abundant lashings of rain from the East Asian monsoons created sinkholes and depressions, forming sudden valleys in an otherwise flat terrain. The undulating unevenness—combined with the perforation caused by rivers and subterranean streams disgorging into pools, wet-lands, and the bay—formed the crooked backstreets that follow the course of old, long-filled-in rivulets or subterranean streams faintly sensed in the low rumbling heard beneath storm drains and manholes, representing visible traces of a natural topography around which the city has evolved.

This much we can verify, yet the fog of time obscures history. Even the skeletons and fossils of prehistoric creatures, like the one of a Naumann elephant excavated from beneath the business center of Nihonbashi Honcho, represent a period of history as firmly interred in the past as these bone relics. With the development of implements like stone axes, knives, and hot pebbles used for cooking—which took place during the last glaciation some 20,000 to 30,000 years ago—large creatures like the elk and elephant became extinct. Colder gusts of air caused the earth to dry and then harden, then to experience tidal advances in the early Jomon period (8,000 BC–300 AD), when the climate once again grew warm, the shoreline reaching as far as the range of modest hills known today as the yamanote. The bluffs and ridges at the shore provided natural jetties for fishing and gathering shellfish. Shell mounds and the outlines of pit dwellings in present-day Itabashi and Kita wards, along with the discovery of stone tools along the upper banks of rivers and at the head of the bay, indicate the existence of primitive settlements, the home of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers.

A rich, inventive earthenware culture arose as the glacial epoch receded and a more temperate climate emerged. Earthen vessels from this period bear the impression of straw twines and cords pressed into the soft clay. These cord-marked pieces of pottery lent the age its name; the Jomon period. Tokyo is littered with mounds where these mollusk gatherers, a hunting, fishing, and gathering race, dumped their used shells. Bone tools and stone and ceramic ware have been found in middens.

As a study, archeology in Japan began, improbably, with the arrival of American zoologist Edward S. Morse, who visited to conduct advanced research on brachiopods, the Western Pacific shellfish. Traveling by train from Yokohama to Shimbashi on June 19, 1877, he chanced to glance out of the window as his carriage passed through the district of Omori. There he spotted a rise in the ground that he immediately identified as a shell mound. Further excavations revealed the site to be a 5,000-year-old cockleshell heap. Morse returned some days later with students from Tokyo Imperial University, and the group dug through the site with their bare hands, finding a large collection of unique forms of pottery, three worked bones, and a curious baked-clay tablet. Similar kitchen heaps were found in Ochanomizu, on Ueno Hill, and even in the grounds of the present-day Imperial Palace. A thirst for knowledge led to more excavations and the unearthing, in 1884, of another stratum of Japanese history along a slope near present-day Nezu Station now known as Yayoi-zaka. Grains of charred rice and chaff were found in jars and pots by the student excavators, the discovery driving back the presumed date of the region’s earliest agronomists.

The Yayoi period (300 BC–300 AD) was a time when rice cultivation and metalworking evolved in Japan. Advancements in better-managed communities during this period are visible in the everyday objects of the age. These include animal snares, fire pits, stronger earthen vessels fired at higher temperatures, clay figurines, lacquer ware, copper and iron tools, and burial urns— this latter an important and telling item. When people begin to honor their dead, they have made a significant leap in social development; the remembrance of ancestors is an important act in the establishing of historical time. The orange-brown-colored haniwa that were placed at the foot of ancient tumuli were also associated with remembrance of the dead. These unglazed clay figurines in cylindrical or configured forms represent people, animals, and familiar objects and shapes such as appliances and scale models of primitive residences.

In the western suburb of Todoroki, the scallop-shaped Noge Otsuka tomb has been preserved in remarkably fine condition. Dating from the fifth century, the mound is representative of the Middle Kofun culture that prevailed in the Kanto region. The hill is encircled with river stones and haniwa. Excavations of its one stone and two wooden coffins revealed a trove of relics, including swords, iron arrowheads, armor, armlets, iron sickles, bronze mirrors, and combs. The quality of the relics and the scale of the tomb indicate that this was the resting place of a powerful chieftain based in the southern Musashino area. The keyhole-shaped Horaisan Kofun, in nearby Tamagawa, is Tokyo’s oldest tomb, dating from the fourth century. Its burial relics attest to the existence of a ruler who controlled much of the Tama River region.

If geography and climate define habitat, it was inevitable that people would settle within the eight provinces that made up the Kanto plain. The largest region of flatland in Japan, its location on the eastern seaboard placed it at the furthest distance from potential enemies invading from continental Asia. As it was well-irrigated, it was ideal for the cultivation of rice and for the training of horses in the employ of warriors.

The site of the villages from which Tokyo would emerge straddles three rivers—the Sumida, the Arakawa, and the Edogawa— as they flow over the flat alluvial lowland before discharging into Tokyo Bay. This broad swath of land, barely above sea level, is highly prone to flooding and other disasters; it has been the subject of countless calamities and will likely be so again. Much of the shore was marshy, but when the area was developed in the late sixteenth century, land reclamation projects solidified the shoreline, adding space to the future city.

As river courses altered and geological shifts and changes in sea levels occurred, upland plains formed. The biggest landmass of this sort is the Musashino plateau, a diluvial plain running 60 kilometers west of the city center to the mountainous edges of the Kanto plain. Its escarpments penetrate into the city, creating a clearly defined geography separating the flat, low-lying sections of the city close to the bay and river estuaries called the shitamachi (low city) from the rising inland zones called the yamanote (high city). The zonal distinction extends far beyond geography.

The areas comprising present-day Tokyo were not entirely uninhabited; early Korean communities were said to have settled along the Sumida River. On March 18 in the year 628—a surprisingly concise date—an event took place that would presage the rise of a city that was not just martial, but also devotional. Hinokuma Takenari and his brother Hamanari, both fishermen, found a small gold statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, tangled in their nets. According to the story, they threw the image back into the river, only to witness it reappear. When the image was taken to their liege, Haji-no-Nakatomo, he interpreted the incident as auspicious, and built a hall in his home to enshrine the deity. Completed in 645, the Asakusa Kannon temple may be the oldest religious site in the city. The diminutive statue became a hibutsu, a hidden image—one too sacred to set eyes on. The origin of the icon remains a mystery, but a possible explanation surfaced in 1945, just after the firebombing of the temple, when the remains of the main hall were being excavated. Religious implements and tiles of continental Asian origin dating from the seventh and eighth century were found, hinting at the possibility that the statue is of Korean provenance.

The flatness of the Musashino plateau, in a country where mountains are revered, seems to have inspired despondent thoughts, its very vastness a limitation, as this ancient poem implies:

The Musashino plain,

Where there are few mountains

For the moon to approach.

Rising gibbous from the loam,

It sinks back into the grass.

The twelve-year-old Lady Sarashina crossed the Sumida River one gusty autumn day in 1020, noting, as her entourage was swallowed up by the expanse of grasses, that the reeds were so tall that the very tips of the horsemen’s bows were invisible. The principal characteristic of the plain—its dense overgrowth of grasses, pampas, wild bush clover, and reeds—was documented over the centuries in poetry. Clear skies, the moon, and Mount Fuji— easily visible from the plain—were subjects of a number of later paintings. In one pair of six-fold screens created by an unknown artist in the seventeenth century, a tangle of wild carnations, wild grasses, and Chinese bellflowers occupies the foreground.

By the twelfth century, a medieval society was beginning to emerge, with the samurai military class taking the reins of power from an incompetent, inward-looking bureaucratic aristocracy in Kyoto. The name Edo seems to have first been used around this time, when Chichibu Shigetsugu built a home on a section of tableland at Kojimachi, naming himself after the location. His name change—he was thenceforth called Edo Shigetsugu— marks the first historical reference to the place-name Edo. (Edo meant door to the cove, an indicator of how far Tokyo Bay penetrated into the center of the city, its waters lapping up against the shore of the Kojimachi tableland.)

Present-day Tokyo, then part of the eastern provinces, belonged to the Koku domain of Musashino, the koku-fu (provincial capital) based in the present-day city of Fuchu. Stretches of the wild, lonely plain were not always safe for travelers or pilgrims. The thirteenth-century bandit Owada Dogen earned a reputation for waylaying travelers passing through an overgrown valley as they progressed westward toward the mountains. His name has survived in a road in the Shibuya district called Dogenzaka, a slope that now bears little resemblance to the one haunted by the city’s most notorious highwayman.

As these accounts demonstrate, history preserved in names, sufficing for the absence of any material evidence of the past, was to become a characteristic of a city thoroughly fixated on the present.

Hagoita—small wooden paddles used in a New Year’s game called hanetsuki—are usually decorated with the faces of kabuki characters. The game, which is something like badminton, is hardly played any more, but the Hagoita Market continues to be a New Year tradition at the Senso-ji temple—one that dates back about 350 years. The faces of kabuki characters can still be seen in theatrical performances; the art form endures to this day. (Dreamstime © Meaothai)


The Master Plan

Fishing village to citadel – Social structure – First

foreign visitors – Pleasure quarters – Flowers of Edo

The origins of entire dynasties have been predicated on foundation myths, cities on oracular prophesies, the divinations of occult figures, the occurrence and mediation of supra-human incidents. Accordingly, legend claims that the goddess Benten, through the medium of a fish that leapt out of the river, led the feudal lord Ota Dokan to a low hill where he was commanded to erect a fortress in the vicinity of a nondescript fishing village named Edo.

The mound, standing above the outer gardens of today’s Imperial Palace, was easily defensible, commanding the estuaries of a number of local rivers. One of those waterways was the Hibiya inlet, connected to Edo Bay. Boats could anchor at a quay near the foot of the settlement. Under Ota’s supervision, beginning in 1457, the quay was turned into a thriving center for shipping and trade. Fish, rice, tea, copper, iron, and much-coveted herbal medicines from China were offloaded here.

Visiting poets, scribes and members of the literary nobility left short accounts of this first incarnation of the city, but no trace remains of its earth fortifications or structures. Its thatched buildings, compacted earthen embankments, bamboo palisades, ditches, and wells were likely more akin to a rural stockade than a castle. The site reverted to nature and the original fishing families who predated the settlement after Ota Dokan’s murder in 1486 at the command of his own lord, Uesugi Sadamasa, who was jealous